Recently, there’s been a surge in reporting on psychedelics. Often, “psilocybin” is used interchangeably with “magic mushrooms”, with little distinction made between the two. This is especially important as results become available from clinical trials — only synthetic psilocybin is used in these settings.
Active compounds in magic mushrooms
Psilocybin is the compound in magic mushrooms that creates the remarkable experience these fungi are known for. Actually, that’s not strictly true. Psilocybin has little effect on the brain itself — it’s considered a ‘pro-drug’ — and is converted in the body to psilocin, the true star of the show. Psilocin is the molecule that directly interacts with the brain to create the psychedelic mushroom experience.
In magic mushrooms, psilocin is usually only found in trace amounts, where psilocybin can comprise up to 2% of the overall weight of a dried mushroom. Both are named after the largest group of psychedelic mushrooms, the Psilocybe genus, with over 120 different species. The compounds were originally researched, synthesized and named by Albert Hofmann, better known as the ‘inventor’ of LSD or “acid.”
If this was the end of the story, synthetic psilocybin could be considered an exact replacement for magic mushrooms in a clinical setting. While this has been the case so far, the story may be changing.
Magic mushrooms and the entourage effect
The entourage effect is a phenomenon that has garnered much attention from the cannabis industry. The premise is that cannabis is more than just a vehicle for THC and CBD — its primary active components — and cannot be replicated with synthesized compounds alone. This is largely due to a plethora of other compounds, mainly terpenes, that can influence the psychoactive effects of a given plant.
Evidence is emerging that suggests a similar observance in magic mushrooms. It has been known for decades that some species of magic mushrooms contain compounds similar to psilocybin: baeocystin and norbaeocystin. While the research is scarce, it suggests that these chemicals may also have an influence on the brain.
More recently, trace amounts of entirely different compounds were found in magic mushrooms. They’re beta-carbolines and are known to inhibit an enzyme called monoamine oxidase. This enzyme is responsible for clearing psychedelic substances from the brain; when inhibited, it can prolong and intensify a psychedelic experience.
Mushroom strains and ‘chemovars’
It remains unknown as to whether these substances — in the minimal quantities in which they’re found — may be enough to differentiate mushrooms from synthetic psilocybin, but their existence alone bolsters the need for more research.
Alongside scientists, these investigations will likely also be pursued by eventual players in the magic mushroom industry. Like cannabis, magic mushrooms have many different ‘strains’ that have been bred over the years. The weed industry is slowly making a shift from ‘strains’ (used for bacteria and viruses, not plants) that describe physical aspects of the plant, to ‘chemovars’ that indicate what the plant contains.
No doubt this trend will continue in an eventually legal mushroom system.